‘Privilege ain’t welcome here’

Mark Stevens’ courtside American drama and the end of ‘ownership.’

BY HENRY ABBOTT

Before Game 3 of the NBA Finals, I found myself on the concourse of the highest level of Oracle Arena. If you were scoring it, this would be the place behind the cheapest seats in the back of the doomed arena on the edge of the more affordable of the Bay Area’s two cities. But even here, in the least elite square feet of the Finals, it’s almost like being in the green room of a TV show or the VIP area of a nightclub. The shoes are impossibly expensive, the purses are beautiful and carried by both sexes, minor celebrities dot the halls. On StubHub, the worst seat is more than $600.

And yet it’s not nearly fancy enough. Very soon, possibly tonight—way down there—the arena will host its last ever NBA game. The Warriors will move somewhere sleeker and more expensive still.

I wondered if anyone in the building was just a regular sports fan, here for the love of the game. Maybe not. Maybe the business of the in-person NBA caters to nothing but the rich and powerful. It’s a stretch to say that this league, owned and run by billionaires, is also one that caters to them. But it’s less of a stretch than it used to be.

That’s not just a story of keeping people out, though. It’s also about whom you let in, and when you let the connected and wealthy in, they bring their own complications.

Mark Stevens and Kyle Lowry
When an NBA Finals game ends, everyone moves. Players go to locker rooms. VIPs go to sponsored lounges. Drunk people go to escalators. For 15 minutes: gridlock. The smart move is to move early. And so it happens that with 10:37 left in the fourth quarter, I picked my way down the steps of section 120, near where Kyle Lowry dove so damn hard into the first couple of rows, trying to save a ball.

The next thing I knew, Lowry was mad. Telling the referee something or other with unusual purpose.

After the game ended, I rushed onto the court, pushing against the tide of expensive name-brand outfits making way for the exit.

“Guys,” I asked, credential on my chest identifying me as a journalist, “what happened over there with Kyle Lowry?”

A middle-aged blonde woman had a loud and quick answer: “Mark Stevens shoved him and then got a warning and got kicked out!” Maybe six people from the most expensive seats, men and women, nodded along. “Do you mind if I record this?” I asked, reaching for my cell phone. As soon as the device appeared, the woman who had been talking raised both hands, as if I had pulled a gun. “Oh no,” she said. They wanted no part of that. Nobody said another word.

That was my first clue that Mark Stevens was a big deal.

LeBron weighs in
The next day, there was an awkward period of in-between.

  • After we learned Stevens is a legend of venture capital at Sequoia Capital, reportedly worth more than $2 billion, and—this is the key—a member of the Warriors’ six-person executive board (listed in the “ownership” section of the Warriors’ media guide).

  • Before the NBA and Warriors announced any punishment.

I spent that period thinking about what an almighty battle it would be for Lowry to fight with Stevens, through media or PR or Twitter or whatever, should it come to that. Someone reported to be worth more than $2 billion has options.

“Players are definitely vulnerable,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said during that lull. Green and Lowry are opponents in the Finals. Green and Stevens are Warriors. But it was beyond clear with whom Green sympathized. “Any time you're in a situation where you can do no right, like in defending yourself, you're vulnerable. So if a fan says whatever they want to you and then you say something back, you're fined. If Kyle was to then hit back, a lot more than a fine would have then happened to Kyle. It’s a situation where you’re essentially helpless.”

Sometimes, fans can’t contain themselves. Drake is touching people in a way that seems harmless enough, but crosses a line in a league still rattled by an ugly incident involving a fan saying something racially charged to Russell Westbrook in Salt Lake City. In college, Marcus Smart charged into the stands and endured a fan saying something that really shook him.

Would anybody dare to define limits around the rainmaker? It’s not always clear what rules, or forces, contain people with infinite powers of lawyers and PR. Donald Trump just doesn’t comply when Congress wants information. The Koch brothers spend tons to change or influence laws that hamper profits. Jeff Bezos is sweating anti-trust legislation and can afford a multi-pronged D.C. charm offensive. And the league office exists to work for NBA owners. Donald Sterling is the only real example of the league disciplining one meaningfully.

On the other hand, LeBron James shook things up with a strong statement on Instagram, and the Players Association too. It was getting hard to find anyone who thought Stevens didn’t deserve discipline.

There was a slight delay before Lowry spoke, during which the league announced that Stevens would be banned for a year and fined $500,000. The punishment does, at least by its very existence, assert that in the NBA, unlike many other places, there are checks on billionaire behavior. Kyle Lowry speaks for many when he says he wants Stevens banned for life.

‘He wanted to push me and curse at me.’
Stevens cast a dark cloud over the NBA Finals. The silver lining was Lowry’s Thursday trip to the podium, with just the right amount of poise and a dash of not taking any crap. Here’s part of the transcript:

I'm glad I did what I did, and I understand that things could have been a lot different if I reacted a different way or if I did something or put my hands on him or did anything of that nature.

But the support I've gotten from fellow players, the league, has been unbelievable. With that being said, I think more should be done. He's not a good look for the ownership group that they have. And I know Joe Lacob. Those guys are great guys. The ownership that they have that I know, they're unbelievable guys. But a guy like that, showing his true class, and he shouldn't be a part of our league. There's just no place for that.

Since it went a little sideways last night, could you confirm what the guy said to you? To go blank yourself? Is that accurate?
Yeah. Multiple times.

And then in that situation you were just talking about, how did you keep your cool?
Understanding that at the moment my team needed me. Understanding that there are plenty of fans and kids in the world watching this game. Me being a grown man, having kids myself. I'm a grown man and my kids could always go back and see that.

If it wasn't in this situation, things may have been—they probably would have been done differently, handled differently by me. But understanding that I have two young children and being able to hold myself to a certain standard, which I do, I hold myself to a high, high standard. And I have to make sure that I uphold that.

That's a big thing for me, being a guy that upholds himself to a high standard. Never letting guys like him get under your skin because that's bull crap.

Draymond Green in the past has called for the term "owners" to be done away just because it gives these people this owner mentality, looking at players not as people but as kind of assets. With the incident that took place yesterday, do you think that gives further credence to what he's been saying as far as how maybe owners see athletes just because of the name that they're given?
Yeah, not everyone, not all of them. But certain ones, yes. And I can say for sure that guy makes me feel like that. Mark Stevens, whoever his name is, makes me feel like he's one of those guys. Draymond with that, I remember him saying that. I believe it's true. We call it the Board of Governors, but people in the world would call it the ownership. It should be changed. And a guy like that definitely shows that's what he feels, to me.

How were you able to kind of separate yourself in that moment and quickly get back to what you were doing on the floor, and when did you begin to realize how big a moment you got caught up in?
Whatever happened, happened. I mean, I was furious. I'm not going to lie. It took me a couple minutes to kind of—I think it was a foul. The ball came in play. I was still thinking about it, and the foul was called. I believe we called a timeout. I was pretty upset. Marc Gasol kind of came to me and said, Look, come on, we need you, kind of come back; they will handle it. And Freddie and Kawhi and those guys, Danny, kind of like, try to come back here, we need you to stay in this moment and understand the situation that we were in as a basketball game.

And that's what it's about. It's about us winning the basketball game. It definitely kind of brought me back quicker. I knew it would be a big deal, but I didn't know it would be as big of a deal as him being a part of the group that writes the checks. That makes it even more of a place where he should know this is what happens when you sit courtside. There's a probability that a guy is trying to make a hustle play. If (referee) Marc Davis wasn't in the way, I think I would have saved it.

But it just happens. I mean, you can do what you want, and obviously he did what he wanted to do at that moment. He wanted to push me and curse at me.

‘That guy makes me feel like that’
Stevens apologized, in a released statement, for his “lapse of judgment” and “behavior.” Those words are unlikely to do the trick. What Lowry’s talking about is something far more specific, and hurtful.

The whole building is exclusive, and gets more so with each step closer to the court. It’s no wonder that courtside there might be inclusivity issues.

Kyle Lowry plays a certain way and has been colliding hard with things since 2006. Physical contact on the court, in play, is comfortable to him. This contact was something else. Lowry’s ire standing on that court was big. He felt he had learned something about Stevens: “A guy like that shouldn't be a part of our league. Being honest with you. That's my personal opinion. That's just how I feel.”

Many praised Lowry for not having a bigger reaction, potentially a physical one. “It definitely could have gone bad,” says Lowry. “But I'm bigger than him as a person. My kids are more important to me than he is to me. So I have to make sure that I always think for my kids first, and that's what it's all about.”

“The essence of American racism,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in a famous Atlantic story, “is disrespect.” The subhead of that story: “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”

Martenzie Johnson of The Undefeated asked Lowry about a suggestion Green once made, to stop using the word “owners.” Johnson went on to write a story about the continued ways the league’s set-up echoes slavery. For all of the NBA’s progress, it’s still a league where rich white men trade young black men—a set-up that is no help in addressing “compounding moral debts.”

Johnson may have changed the NBA forever in that moment: Although a New York Times headline calls Stevens a “minority owner” few others do. From Stevens’ apology to the NBA.com’s report and ESPN’s news story—the word “owner” evaporated overnight.

I haven’t heard anyone say they know much of anything about Stevens’ views on race. But the acts of shoving and cursing demonstrate an inarguable sense of dominion and entitlement. Billionaires control more of our lives than ever. The NBA Finals put that on visual display, white hands on a black body. Ownership mentality is an ongoing concern.

“A guy like that definitely shows that's what he feels,” says Lowry.

Nobody used the word “race.” Maybe that is too electric around so many reporters, but that’s the thread. Green isn’t in the habit of taking public stands against Warriors kingpins and in support of Finals opponents. LeBron ends his Instagram statement with “#PrivilegeAintWelcomeHere.”

Maybe there’s a next act, some healing that can happen here over time. Maybe not. In his statement, Stevens thanked “those who have accepted my calls.” As of Thursday, Lowry wasn’t one of them. Asked if he had heard from Stevens, Lowry said: “I don't know him. I don't care to know him. He showed his true colors at the time.”


IN SEARCH OF KEVIN DURANT

Part 1: Kevin Durant lurks in a hallway

Art by Mike McGrath, Jr. Instagram: @michaelmcgrathjr Twitter: @mikemcgrath

TrueHoop explores Kevin Durant, a star of the Golden State Warriors and the crown jewel of this summer’s free agent class. What does he want?

BY HENRY ABBOTT

Kevin Durant was a 19-year-old rookie when the Seattle SuperSonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder. Back then, Thunder practices took place in a no-frills gym a half-hour outside the NBA’s sleepiest city, near a Purina factory that made the whole place smell like dog food. NBA players don’t practice in gyms that crappy anymore, but there were no complaints. In some ways, it was perfect for a team populated with hungry hoop lifers, who waged legendary practice wars on that stinky court, cementing their brand as dedicated to the game.

A couple of years later, while LeBron James had the league in fits over his free agency around 2010’s Decision, Durant quietly re-signed with the Thunder, without a no-trade clause and with no drama. A year after that, when owners and players duked it out in the lockout, Durant hooped across America for free, playing on so many asphalt playground courts and in so many charity games that he later got stress fractures.

Drama may surround other players—but this one? He was on the court.

Everyone knew that the Thunder would be the NBA’s next great team, and they made the Finals in 2012, arguably ahead of schedule. But the Spurs won the West a couple of times, and then the Warriors took over. As the Thunder tried different coaches and rosters, Durant grew grumpier. Eventually, he gave up on the Thunder—and drama-free free-agency—three summers ago. Durant signed with the Warriors and finally won one championship, then another. And he might win a third.

ESPN’s Royce Young followed all eight of Durant’s OKC years, knows Durant well, and says that this summer, in free agency, Durant has a riddle to solve. He needs to live up to his potential as the undisputed leader of a top-flight, title-contending team. Of course Durant is good enough, Young suggests, to be the best player on a title team—as a player. And off the court, well, he’s learning. One of the draws of playing in the Bay has been a crash course in team leadership and chemistry from professor Stephen Curry. Soon it will be time to find a new home, so people will stop saying what Young says: “On the Warriors, it seems like he’s just winning them for Steph.”

The likely places for Durant to go
There are 30 NBA teams. One of them must be the right place for Durant to sign this offseason. He has said he wants to make the maximum—about $38 million.

Although half the league could make moves to create that much cap space, here are the teams likely, in an ESPN assessment, to have that kind of cap room:

  • $72.5 million New York Knicks

  • $45.6 million Brooklyn Nets (after reported trade)

  • $42.5 million L.A. Clippers

  • $42 million Indiana Pacers

  • $32.5 million L.A. Lakers

  • $28.8 million Dallas Mavericks

  • $23.3 million Atlanta Hawks

  • Warriors also have the right to re-sign Durant.

Although this week, there is more talk around the NBA who think it might make more sense than ever for Durant to stay on in Golden State, most of the season the guess has been that Durant is intent on A) winning a lot and B) not looking like he’s playing second fiddle to another superstar.

First, let’s assess who can sign him, and have a chance at contending:

This simple analysis brings the list down to five teams, with a nod to the possibility that the Knicks could move toward contention by acquiring an additional superstar. But would that work? NBA sources suggest you can eliminate LeBron’s Lakers and Steph’s Warriors if Durant’s goal remains to avenge his social media critics, to prove he can win on a team that he leads.

Which means, surprisingly, the list of likely destinations is not the Knicks has been rumored all season, but instead the Pacers, Nets, and Clippers.

We will explore further in the weeks to come.


Playoff notes

  • There has been a lot of turnover in Golden State's training staff since LeBron James called the Warriors "the most healthy team I've ever seen in NBA history." Keke Lyles was recruited away to run the Hawks’ training staff, amid reports the Warriors wouldn’t pay him what he wanted. Amazingly, a few years later, Chelsea Lane did the exact same thing.

  • One of the postseason’s favorite themes is that the Warriors destroy teams in the third quarter. TrueHoop’s Don Skwar tallied up the Warriors’ third quarters and found: not so much. Over the entire playoffs, it’s 555-527, or +1.5 points difference over Golden State’s 19-game playoff stretch.

  • Lowry pointed out a few times that on the play we discussed above, that resulted in a billionaire shove, Lowry actually did save the ball … it was just bad luck that he saved it to referee Marc Davis, who happened to be standing out of bounds.

  • The other thing worth noting: In the aftermath of the play that resulted in a push, watch the woman in yellow in the second row blatantly had profound concern for her chest. Looked like it really hurt. The force was big.


The rest of the Finals for the Warriors? A real pain.

BY DAVID THORPE

Henry Abbott mentioned yesterday that Stephen Curry promised, “We’re going to compete no matter what happens, you can count on that.” Does that sound like someone who really believed he was playing for the better team? The Warriors, after a strong if not sterling effort on defense in Game 2, had no fight in them when they had a chance to take a 2-1 series lead over the Raptors Wednesday night. Does that sound like a team that had confidence?

No and no.

Before teams win titles, they have to believe they can do it. When you hear coaches talk nonstop about teams “buying in,” they’re talking about players believing in the plan, the assembled talent, the culture, the connections, all of it. The veteran Warriors looked around the locker room at Oracle as the series moved to Oakland for Game 3, went to battle the Raptors full of hope, but soon realized their injury-depleted roster was vastly outmatched.

Especially with how sharply Toronto played. Sure, Curry’s 47 points helped the Raptors believe that he was amazing, but they already knew that. No other Warriors player offered anything close to what was needed to take Game 3. Their lack of confidence on offense and force on defense led to a relatively non-competitive fourth quarter.

The Raptors also got positive production from as many as five players on both ends of the court. Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam have proven to be able to score on any Warrior. Everyone knows what Kevin Durant brings to the Warriors on offense, but it’s his ability to often shut down Siakam that would have a huge and immediate impact on any game Durant plays in.

Durant out, Klay likely, Looney a maybe
Durant, whose strained calf will keep him out of Game 4, matches up best on the spindly long yet quick and crafty young bucket getter Siakam. Add to that mini-arsenal a guard in Fred VanVleet, who finds baskets from everywhere, and the Raptors are showing more firepower than even what the Rockets offered the last two seasons with James Harden and Co. Toronto’s pace of play has bothered the champs too, racing right back at them after makes or misses. It’s obvious that the Raptors have a lot of scoring options.

As for the Warriors, they now have very few good options. Thompson (strained hamstring) is very likely to play in Game 4 tonight (9 ET, ABC), but asking him to do a lot carries so much risk. If his sore hamstring affects his offense, it’s not just lost possessions that will come back to haunt the Warriors. Hamstrings don’t heal so fast, and more running and racing with more minutes only makes things worse. Doing too much too soon means he’s at risk of aggravating the injury. And asking him to be just a role player who sits and waits for a pass would mean Curry again is shouldering the load. That has its costs too.

The one glimmer of hope for Warriors fans is that forward Kevon Looney might play before this thing is over. His damaged shoulder seemed too bad to consider a return, but a second opinion is being looked into, according to Golden State coach Steve Kerr. And since it’s not an injury to his legs, like Thompson’s (and Durant’s), Kerr can fairly expect Looney to still be able to help bolster their underperforming-to-date defense, if not tonight then maybe later in the series.

Kerr hoped DeMarcus Cousins, another who suffered a debilitating injury (torn quad) during the playoffs, would be the bucket getter in Game 3, but he was completely awful. Cousins had an excellent floor game in Game 2, but the Raptors stymied his passes Wednesday night, and their swarming rim defense robbed him of scoring opportunities under the basket.

Cousins just had no lift in his legs at all. He could amble around the court OK, but he still needs to jump at the end of a play to score. The lingering effects of that quad injury are still preventing him from doing that most of the game. It’s not likely he’ll be fully recovered by tonight, either.

So maybe Kerr will try Draymond Green and even Thompson in their excellent post splits actions, which begin with a feed to the elbow. I haven’t seen those plays as often as I suspected, and they can be very effective. Especially when defenses are too focused on Curry.

No more Curry Rules for Toronto
Which gets us back to Game 3. No matter what the Warriors do, the Raptors will be sticking to a game plan they know well and not the one they created for the first two games. Lesson learned. That plan was trashed for Game 3. They stopped treating Curry like the superhero he is and went back to guarding him like they do the mere mortals from around the league. They stopped hugging him so tightly all the time, stopped worrying about good or bad switches, did away with panicked closeouts.

In the first two games of the series, those designs not only failed to keep Curry from scoring well, they opened up ridiculously easy baskets for his teammates on elementary basketball actions. The Raptors had tried to employ their version of “Curry Rules” and mostly failed.

By choosing in Game 3 to return to how they typically play Curry—straight up—the Raptors regained their defensive confidence. Curry had more open looks Wednesday night—which led to his 47 points—but all of his teammates were being forced to create their own shots far more often.

No Warrior besides a Splash Brother has scored more than 17 points in the first three games, and all five Raptors starters have had that many points at least once. The offensive advantage for this series now is Toronto’s. Unless Warriors other than Thompson and Curry find ways to make a lot more 3s or paint buckets, they’ll be hard pressed to outscore the Raptors three of the next four games.

Maybe it’s a coincidence that the Raptors hit 17 of their 38 shots from behind the arc in Game 3 and made 20 of their 21 free throws. Even so, it was born of a solid plan. They looked like they knew they were the superior team, playing in a comfort zone.

For the first time since the opening day of the season, I no longer think the Warriors will be champions. The oddsmakers, who also had Golden State on top from the get-go, think it’s a toss-up now. Like Nurse, until I see that Thompson, Durant, or both, look capable of scoring efficiently, I don’t think the champs have enough to win the title.